RICHMOND, Va. – “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time.”
That’s how Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney opened Gov. Ralph Northam’s news conference on Thursday afternoon.
After Stoney spoke for a bit, he left the podium to Northam, who announced the decision to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from its prominent place in Richmond.
“Today, we’re here to be honest about our past and talk about our future,” said Northam.
On Thursday morning, Northam discussed Virginia’s history and the history of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond.
Northam quoted Robert E. Lee, giving the former Confederacy general’s thoughts on monuments to the Confederacy, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
Northam called the Lee statue unique as it is larger than others, weighing 12 tons, and sits on a state-owned island, surrounded by the city of Richmond.
“In 2020, we can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people,” said Northam.
The governor is acting under his executive authority and Section § 2.2-2402 of the Code of Virginia, which provides him the sole authority to approve the removal of a work of art owned by Virginia upon submission of a plan to do so.
The Lee monument was erected for and is owned by Virginia and is considered a work of art pursuant to Section 2.2-2401 of the Code of Virginia.
While no exact timetable was announced, Northam said he wants to remove the statue ‘as soon as possible’ and put it into storage, until its future can be decided.
The governor directed the Department of General Services to safely remove the statue from its pedestal and house it in storage until an appropriate location is determined.
The department released this statement Thursday afternoon:
“Governor Ralph Northam today directed the Department of General Services to remove the state-owned Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond. DGS is taking steps to carry out this order as soon as possible. The size, scale and location of the monument will require careful planning, which is currently underway, to ensure it is completed safely and effectively.”
Next, the questions becomes what to do with the pedestal.
Northam said that another statue could be put up in Lee’s place.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Rev. Robert E. Lee IV, a distant nephew of the Confederate general, Robert Johns and Zyahna Bryant spoke during the news conference.
Fairfax and Lee then met with supporters rallying outside at the statue following the Governor’s announcement.
One of them was Richmond City Councilman Michael Jones who said people some may feel uncomfortable with the truth.
“And just come to grips with the fact that there is some truth to the fact that these represent a racist past, it does," Jones said. "It’s not tearing down history.”
Both Fairfax and Lee spoke to the energized group, Fairfax saying it’s the first day for Virginia’s next 400 years. Lee, a preacher in North Carolina, praised the group and the move.
“I think ultimately (the statues have) become idols of white supremacy so the necessity to bring these monuments down is pressing more now than ever, especially when Virginia is pressing to be a leader in the country," Lee said.
Some in the group hope this is the first step toward putting the community on a path to healing and peace.
“I’m kind of upset with all of the protests that’s going on because you know we’ve got a lot of damage (to the city,) but I’m glad the statue that the governor announced today that it’s coming down," Richmond resident Kirk Hardy said.
Jones said it’s not about erasing history, but rather making sure the glorified symbols of today reflect our current culture.
“It doesn’t point to today’s Richmond, and even in Roanoke, it doesn’t point to today’s Roanoke, it points to a past that is problematic at best, inhumane in truth," Jones said.
Lee agreed and said people arguing the statues are history and need to remain standing are choosing to ignore an inconvenient truth.
“You have to kind of finish the sentence and understand that it was a history of enslavement, a history of fighting for states rights to enslave people," Lee said. "And so when you finish those sentences and finish those realities you see that it’s incompatible with what we’re trying to accomplish now as a society that’s bent toward justice.”
Click here to read Northam’s full prepared statement.